It is hard not to be amazed looking at old paintings of Europeans in 18th century Calcutta. Dressed in European finery hardly suitable for the sweltering heat of Bengal, they attempted to transport European manners to the foreign land. Tropical diseases, war and wild animals took a heavy toll on the population. Life was hard for the European and Indian settlers in early colonial Calcutta.
Despite the many charms of living in a new and unchartered land and the adventurous spirit that powered the sails of the ships that brought them here, every day spent in this tropical city was a challenge in the 18th century.
So what did the Europeans do to relieve themselves from the languor and ennui of a long evening? Turns out, life wasn’t quite as dreary as one might imagine.
Life in old Calcutta was enlivened by theatre and yatras (operas by itinerant performers), magnificent balls and masquerades, and even the lottery!
Calcutta was the capital of British India, and under colonial rule, it burgeoned into a thriving metropolis. From the late 18th century to the late 19th century, social and cultural activities in Calcutta were largely determined by British tastes and traditions, although the rich ‘natives’ also participated in recreational activities.
Initially, theatre was the primary source of entertainment. In 1786, the Calcutta Gazette, an English language newspaper founded in Calcutta, noted that theatre performances in the city were of very high quality and that the “the songs and recitatives” here “would have been applauded on any theatre in Europe”.
The earliest theatre in Calcutta was built in 1755 and was called the ‘Playhouse’ or the Old Fort Playhouse, to distinguish it from the ‘New Playhouse’ or Calcutta Theatre. The latter was built in 1775 and the European community thronged to it for many an evening of leisure. As the population grew, so did its recreational needs and, in May 1840, the Sans Souci theatre at Park Street opened, funded generously by Lord Auckland and ‘Prince’ Dwarkanath Tagore, noted industrialist, social reformer and member of Calcutta’s illustrious Tagore family. The Star Theatre was built even later in 1883.
These theatres staged mainly English plays and, especially memorable was the 1784 staging of the Shakespearean tragedy Hamlet. Performed at the Calcutta Theatre, it was “received with very great applause” according to the Calcutta Gazette. A few months later, the Merchant of Venice was staged at the same theatre. But being part of the Calcutta elite cost a pretty penny, more specifically, 1 Gold Mohur if you wanted a Box seat or 8 Sicca Rupees if all you qualified for no more than a seat in the ‘Pit’.
As theatre in Calcutta evolved, this form of art and entertainment was no longer limited to the European community, and Bengali babus (English-educated, wealthy gentry) contributed generously towards its development and propagation. Babu Nabin Chandra Basu spent Rs 2 lakh in a single night, on the 1835 production of Bidyasunder, and, as mentioned earlier, Dwarkanath Tagore lavishly contributed to the construction of the Sans Souci theatre.
There was also an increasing demand for plays in the vernacular. The first Bangla theatre was founded, believe it or not, by a Russian. Gerasim Stepanovich Lebedev, a linguist, musician and pioneer of theatre in India, Lebedev established the ‘Bengal Theatre’ on Beadon Street in 1795.
Assisted by his Bengali language teacher, Goloknath Das, Lebedev translated two English plays, The Disguise and Love Is The Best Doctor, into the vernacular. The Bengali version of The Disguise was titled Kalpanik Sambadal. Michael Madhusudan Dutt was one of the most renowned, original Bengali playwrights of the time, and his play Sarmistha was performed on the 16 of August 1873 at the Bengal Theatre.
Since theatre served the recreational needs of the wealthy, the natives had to find other ways to amuse themselves. Yatras or performances by travelling troupes were very popular among the natives, and the most popular act among the yatra audience was Abhimanyu-vadh, an episode from the Mahabharata.
Mahendranath Dutta, in his book Kalkatar Puraton Kahini O Protha (Tales And Traditions of Old Calcutta), writes that there was an all-woman yatra troupe performing in Calcutta but they were not very popular and soon went out of business owing to criticism from the educated middle class. Singing duels or half-akhrai was another form of recreation that the natives enjoyed.
After theatre, masquerades was an extremely popular form of entertainment but restricted mostly to the European community in Calcutta. The Calcutta Gazette mentions one such masquerade held on March 24th, 1785. For this event, “The rooms and tents were fitted up with taste, in a style entirely new in this country.” The main characters of the masquerade were:
Two gypsies, very smart and witty in their questions and replies… two Boarding School Misses and their Governess, a French Beau and Belle, three admirable Sailors, who sung a glee… a very good Milkmaid, a smart Ballad Singer… a fortune-telling Gypsy, a Joghee (yogi), a Soldier… a French Pastry Cook.
Tickets to the masquerades cost 2 Gold Mohurs each, and the show was followed by a delicious supper.
The Calcutta Gazette says tickets to the event as well as masks were available at the Harmonic, referring probably to the Harmonic Tavern, the most gorgeous building in Old Calcutta famous for its winter concerts, balls and suppers. For these lavish balls and masquerades, it was necessary for the ladies to dress up. In the ‘Europe shops’, hats and laces could be purchased, and professional hairdressers offered their services. The Calcutta Gazette records the advertisement of one Mrs Arend, who “dresses hair in the neatest and most fashionable manner” and “will wait upon any Lady at her own house on the shortest notice”.
Although not strictly a form of entertainment, the lottery was thought of as ‘fashionable gambling’ and “it was not thought improper to devote the proceeds to the erection of a Church”. In 1784, the Calcutta Gazette noted that the demand for tickets to the Calcutta lottery was “astonishingly great”. The lottery ‘wheels’ were made by Nicholls and Howat, “upon the same construction as those used for the State Lotteries in England”.
In 1784, the first prize for the lottery was a diamond ring worth 4,000 Sicca Rupees.
The second prize was a handsome European chariot worth 3,500 Sicca Rupees. The price of a lottery ticket in the 1780s was 100 Sicca Rupees.
Historian Suman Mukherjee, in his article 'Leisure and Recreation in Colonial Bengal: A Socio-cultural Study (2011), points out that in the 18th century, Calcutta witnessed the rapid burgeoning of ‘taverns’ and ‘coffee houses’, which could be found at Dalhousie, Lalbazar, Baubazar and Kasitala. Of these, the 'Harmonic Tavern' was the hub of the elite and fashionable Englishmen. The ‘Calcutta Exchange Coffee House’ opened in 1798 but the most aristocratic coffee house was ‘John Spence Coffee House.’ In winter, aristocratic Europeans as well as rich natives gathered there to enjoy a ball dance and supper.
Mukherjee points out that the “neo-elite class of Bengal was influenced by the taverns and coffee houses” and frequently visited them for animated conversation and a lively evening. Even today, the coffee house at College Street remains a favourite haunt of firebrand authors, educators for stormy debates and intellectual adda!
The British also started the club culture in Calcutta. The Calcutta Cricket Club, Calcutta Football Club, Calcutta Racket Club, Royal Calcutta Golf Club, Calcutta Swimming Club, Saturday Club Limited and Presidency Club are just some of the enormous number of clubs that were opened in Calcutta during this time.
Not just Englishmen but the rich bhadralok class of Calcutta too played golf at the Royal Calcutta Golf Club. Mukherjee points out that the “English-educated, neo-elite class of Bengal brought colonial sports to the Indian mainstream culture”. Horse races were a popular pastime for both Englishmen as well as wealthy natives.
Boat rides on bajras (long, pleasure boats) were another source of recreation for the European as well as the native population of the city. Many English gentlemen at sunset, also “took a leisurely stroll around the great tank in Lal Dighi under orange trees”. The best pleasure garden in colonial Calcutta was Auckland Circus Garden. Eden Garden was built in 1840 on the initiative of Emily Eden and Fann Eden, sisters of Governor-General Lord Auckland. The rich natives also took a ride in the “gorer math” or Kolkata maidan, in horse-drawn carriages in the evenings.
For those who wanted something a little more energetic, pigeon races were the in-thing among the babus of old Calcutta.
The babus also spiced things up a bit by organising nautch performances for English gentlemen during Durga Puja, Holi and wedding ceremonies. Professional female dancers were brought in from Agra, Varanasi and Lucknow for huge sums of money. The nautches were in fact “an Oriental recreation for the British” organized by the rich natives of Calcutta.
Social life in old Calcutta was grand and resplendent but these recreational activities were largely restricted to winter as the European community did not fare too well during the summer and rainy seasons. It took the Europeans a while to adjust to India’s tropical climate, with the early settlers experiencing large-scale mortality. The winter, however, was most enjoyable, and we know this thanks to the Calcutta Gazette, which in 1788 lamented:
“Such are the attractions of Calcutta during the present cold season that two ladies who intended to return to Europe on the Phoenix, have, we understand, lately resolved to remain for the present, and to proceed on one of the last ships.”
Baijayanti Chatterjee currently teaches history at Seth Anandram Jaipuria College and is an old Calcutta enthusiast.